Women, startups thrive after Indian Kashmir eases internet shutdowns
Saira Tramboo, a fashion designer who set up an online business, poses for a picture in Srinagar, India. December 14, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mehran Bhat
What’s the context?
With fewer internet shutdowns, Kashmiri women and entrepreneurs have launched online businesses and turned content creators
- Fewest internet shutdowns in Kashmir in five years
- Mountain region was cut off in effort to curb dissent
- Growing connectivity boosts startups, women's enterprises
SRINAGAR, India - Indian fashion designer Saira Tramboo had long dreamed of setting up her own online brand – but frequent internet shutdowns imposed by authorities to quell dissent in her home state of Kashmir made it impossible.
When reliable, high-speed connections were finally reinstated last year, Tramboo began selling her designs on Instagram, joining numerous women and startups using the internet to create new business opportunities in the region.
"The internet means life to me," said Tramboo, 27, who has more than 40,000 followers on her virtual storefront and employs three women to help process orders for her traditional embroidered tunics and other items.
"It has not only helped me become independent and earn a good amount of money, but it also helped me create job opportunities for others."
The government withdrew Kashmir's autonomous status in 2019 and split the state into two federal territories, aiming to tighten its grip on a restive Muslim-majority region where separatists have fought Indian rule for decades.
Anticipating major unrest, authorities imposed a communications blackout in Kashmir, cutting off phone and internet connections. Heavy restrictions lasted until February 2021, when 4G mobile data services were reinstated in the region.
The region had the least number of disruptions this year since 2017, according to advocacy group Software Freedom Law Center India.
Improved internet access in Indian Kashmir has enabled new online businesses from influencers to e-commerce.
Many are set up by women entrepreneurs who previously had limited options for work outside the home due to conservative cultural norms, and startups funded by a growing number of investors keen to tap the region's potential.
"We are habituated to curfews, snow, and we grew up amidst bullets and militancy," said Sheikh Samiullah, 31, a co-founder of FastBeetle, Kashmir's first local courier firm, which uses a mobile app to manage deliveries.
"But the internet is the oxygen of our business."
The Kashmir valley drew more than 16 million tourists to its snowy mountains and lush vistas this year - the highest number since British colonial rule ended in 1947 - after COVID-19 travel restrictions eased and the security situation improved.
But unemployment is still a challenge because of the lack of private industry, with its jobless rate hitting 24%, triple the national average, data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy think-tank showed.
Startup investors and entrepreneurs say the mountain region brings challenges - but also potential for development and growth, especially now internet connections have improved.
"Startups come out of Hyderabad and Bangalore, but to identify problems in the Himalayan belt and solving them takes a huge amount of courage," said Syed Faaiz Qadri, 25, a co-founder at food logistics business Zarin.
The firm works with farmers to supply Kashmiri rainbow trout to restaurants and e-commerce platforms across India. They have faced difficulties ranging from militant encounters to a lack of cold-storage supplies needed to keep their food fresh.
The restoration of internet meant Zarin's founders were able to use a COVID-19 lockdown last year to find and sign up new customers, and were ready with their first orders when travel restrictions lifted.
Both businesses and funders say new startups can benefit residents by creating jobs, finding new markets for their goods, and enabling growth in the conflict-stricken region.
Some internet-based firms found ways to navigate patchy network in the mountains.
FastBeetle - which serves more than 1,200 enterprises including many run by women selling products online - found poor data connections meant couriers could not look up addresses, and would often return to the office with undelivered parcels.
The founders moved from 4G to 2G to operate the app, which now functions even without the internet.
"We are making money on an internet-based company in a region where internet is patchy," said Samiullah.
"People now believe they too can draw investment if we could."
While a lion's share of startup funding still goes to firms in big cities, government incentives and private capital can help correct the "skewed investment dynamics", said Anuj Sharma, founder of ALSiSAR Impact, a startup incubator in Mumbai.
"The community is very responsive to these startups," said Vishal Ray, at the Jammu and Kashmir Entrepreneurial Development Institute, a body set up by the regional government to support startups and entrepreneurs.
"They purchase and promote these brands - there is a strong affinity," he said.
Improved internet connectivity has also offered a boost to content creators, including women.
Syed Areej Safvi, 27, has been hailed as the first female performer of ladishah, a traditional Kashmiri musical form of storytelling.
"Being a female content creator is still considered taboo in a conservative society like Kashmir," said Safvi, whose income is largely from her video content.
She recorded her first ladishah amid an internet shutdown in 2019, describing the situation in Kashmir, and quickly gained a following as internet restrictions were eased.
India's 637 million - and rising - number of smartphone users are driving a growing market for online content, according to a report by venture capital fund Kalaari Capital.
It is estimated there are some 80 million creators in the country, including 50,000 professional creators on regional video platforms. However, only a small minority make a good income from their work, it said.
Despite the limited opportunities and uncertain environment, better internet access has been a great leveller for women, said Safvi.
"Internet access has helped me grow my audience and experiment with different earning opportunities online," she said.
"It helps every woman in Kashmir to break patriarchal barriers, overcome taboos and become self-sufficient."
(Reporting by Mehran Bhat in Srinagar and Roli Srivastava in Mumbai.)
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